Skip to main content

If you haven't seen comedian Russell Brand's call to revolution, don't worry – it probably means you're over 30, which can't be helped. Before you know it, some wise young person in your sphere will forward it with the subject line "This!"

Mr. Brand appeared this week on BBC Newsnight, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, the vinegary elder statesman of British broadcasting. The comedian had just guest-edited a copy of the British political magazine The New Statesman on the subject of revolution and was invited to expand on his views.

What transpired was an incendiary confrontation that will be shown repeatedly when they make a program called Take That, Old Man: Golden Moments in Inter-Generational Conflict. Think of the Sex Pistols' Olympian feat of swearing on the Today show in 1976, or Mick Jagger on World in Action in 1967, telling a bunch of sour-faced pillars of the community that young people had been screwed over, which is why they were angry: "The system has done them no good at all, otherwise they wouldn't be looting and burning."

Mr. Brand, who is a modern, meditating, vegan, recovering-junkie kind of rock star, echoed those sentiments 50 years later. He doesn't vote, he told a baffled Mr. Paxman, because voting would legitimize a corrupt system; the revolution is on the way, "I ain't got a flicker of a doubt." And while he doesn't know what will replace the current bankrupt hierarchies, it "shouldn't destroy the planet, shouldn't create massive economic disparity, shouldn't ignore the needs of the people."

He used the word "paradigm" a distressing amount. He had an unfortunate tendency to sound like Dennis the revolutionary peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – "We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune!" – when he said he wanted "a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibilities for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment." He did not address the contradictions presented by his own Hollywood-fattened bank account (although he writes about this tension in his New Statesman essay, which is worth a read).

You could dismiss him for those reasons, but it would be a mistake. Mr. Brand's rant struck a big, brassy chord; he's given shape to an inchoate sense of anger and frustration, especially among the have-not generation. The clip of his appearance was forwarded to me by a talented, ambitious and politically disengaged 21-year-old with the words "All of my beliefs were verbalized by an unlikely fellow yesterday. All of my friends/colleagues and I agree wholehearted with it."

It's true: A man who rose to fame on the catchphrase "I'm pulling down my trousers and my pants" while hosting a chat show about Big Brother (the annoying television one, not Orwell's) might seem an unusual Pied Piper for social change. But when the political system looks increasingly absurd – and you need only look to the kindergarten-style scrapping in Canada's Senate or the tumbleweeds that recently rolled past the monuments in Washington – the absurdists look rational. In his interview, Mr. Brand pointed to the fact that the British government is suing the European Union to remove a cap on bankers' bonuses on the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis – if that isn't head-spinning farce, what is?

The web of trust and civic engagement meant to bind a society is fraying. You could choose any number of indicators pointing to this, but here's just one from south of the border: Just 19 per cent of Americans trust their federal government most of the time, compared with 75 per cent 50 years ago, according to Pew Research.

It's hardly surprising that equal-opportunity arch-mocker Jon Stewart won a poll as the most respected news source in America, or that Italian comedian Beppe Grillo's upstart political party, which operates on a populist, nose-thumbing, anti-austerity platform, garnered a quarter of the votes in the Italian elections this year.

"Revolution" is a tired word, as John Lennon knew, and we all want to see the plan. Mr. Brand, more heart than head, was slammed for a lack of specific ideas – and for wanting to burn the whole house down when a medium-sized reno would do. He may be a useful pamphleteer, but other people are doing the hard graft of creating alternatives.

The seeds are there, if not for revolution then at least for change: The same day Mr. Brand's interview ricocheted around in-boxes, there was a business story in The Guardian newspaper about a bunch of economics students at the University of Manchester who got tired of being taught only one, free-market-based set of theories and principles. They have created something called the Post-Crash Economics Society to expand their knowledge of economics history and the different models that have arisen over the years. Their slogan: "The world has changed, the syllabus hasn't – isn't it time to do something about it?"

That's pretty good, although you could always give it a twist: "The world has changed, and the comedians are the only ones making sense." Now that's a funny thought.